Concert Review: John Legend & The Roots

John Legend & The Roots – Brooklyn Bowl – Brooklyn, NY Date of Concert: 06/17/2010 

As one would expect, the musical mash-up of John Legend and The Roots is a slice of pure heaven. And although their collaborative Wake Up Sessions LP is tentatively slated for a Fall 2010 release, on June 18, 2010, the cultural juggernauts joined forces for a dynamic showcase at New York’s Brooklyn Bowl. Over the course of an hour and a half, the ubiquitous John Legend covered a series of protest songs first introduced during the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War era, while The Roots provided modern interpretations of the classic productions. These songs, as John Legend would announce, serve as the backbone of Wake Up.

The evening started with a rousing version of Eddie Harris and LesMcCann’s “Real Compared to What,” an anti-war gem that became more explosive by the passion and fervor of The Roots’ accompaniment. When Owen Biddle slayed the bass and James Poyser tickled the keys, the song’s powerful spirit permeated throughout the audience, in an unexpected twist of fate, reminding the audience –forty years after its 1969 release – that the underlying theme remains relevant. Through the power of music, John Legend and The Roots forced the audience to “wake up,” if only for a second, because the United States finds itself – once again – at the center of an unpopular war. And further, in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, poverty and racism are still recognizable stains on the nation’s multicultural fabric.

Lightening the mood, however, John Legend incorporated a few of his recognizable hits: “Ordinary People” (from Get Lifted) and “Again” (from Once Again). Considering the tone of the show, Legend could have easily included “If You’re Out There” (from Evolver). In spite of this omission, as well as the exclusion of staple tracks from his multi-platinum catalog, the crowd seemed unphased by the high concentration of “new” material that predated the majority of the “young” crowd in attendance. The LP’s title track, for example, was originally released in 1975 by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International, with the late Teddy Pendergrass (of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes) singing lead.

Beyond the universal admiration for John Legend’s soaring vocals, much of the crowd’s pleasure stemmed from the dynamic jam session provided by The Roots. “Captain” Kirk Douglas gave the legendary Jimi Hendrix a run for his money, as he wowed the crowd with his performative antics, and Questlove served as the band’s human metronome, with his signature afro swaying to and fro, while he smashed the drums and teased the audience with animated facial gestures. Black Thought also made a guest appearance – providing vocals on the first half of the evening’s set.

From the “sneak preview” provided at the Brooklyn Bowl, the Wake Up Sessions should be a favorite at the 2011 GRAMMY Awards Ceremony. “Shine,” in particular, was well-received, even though it exists as the sole original track on the project. Hopefully, in the months to come, radio will throw its support behind this exceptional, one-of-a-kind project. Until then, check out John Legend’s official website for future updates.

Clayton Perry is a scribe and a music reviewer. Follow him at @crperry84. All photos courtesy of Ernest Estimé (@ErnestEstime).